The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land (Updated in 2008)

The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land (Updated in 2008)

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by Donna Rosenthal

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Israel is smaller than New Jersey, with 0.11% of the world's population, yet captures a lion's share of headlines. It looks like one country on CNN, a very different one on al-Jazeera. The BBC has their version, The New York Times theirs. But how does Israel look to Israelis? The answers are varied, and they have been brought together here in one of the most…  See more details below


Israel is smaller than New Jersey, with 0.11% of the world's population, yet captures a lion's share of headlines. It looks like one country on CNN, a very different one on al-Jazeera. The BBC has their version, The New York Times theirs. But how does Israel look to Israelis? The answers are varied, and they have been brought together here in one of the most original books about Israel in decades. From battlefields to bedrooms to boardrooms, discover the colliding worlds in which an astounding mix of 7.2 million devoutly traditional and radically modern people live. You'll meet "Arab Jews" who fled Islamic countries, dreadlock-wearing Ethiopian immigrants who sing reggae in Hebrew, Christians in Nazareth who publish an Arabic-style Cosmo, young Israeli Muslims who know more about Judaism than most Jews of the Diaspora, ultra-Orthodox Jews on "Modesty Patrols," and more. Interweaving hundreds of personal stories with intriguing new research, The Israelis is lively, irreverent, and always fascinating.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
In The Israelis, journalist Donna Rosenthal, who lived for some years in Israel and worked in Israeli radio and TV, gives us a broad, well-informed picture of its citizenry. She methodically limns the various ethnic and religious subcultures, Jewish and non-Jewish, that constitute the vibrant and fragile mosaic of Israeli society: native-born Ashkenazim (the Israeli "WASPs," as she puts it); Mizrahim ("Eastern" Jews, a more accurate term than "Sephardim"); Russian and Ethiopian immigrants; Haredim (ultra-Orthodox), religious-Zionist and secular Jews. — Stuart Shoffman
Publishers Weekly
Today's headlines leave the impression there's little to know about Israel outside of its conflict with the Palestinians. Using Hedrick Smith's landmark The Russians as a model, journalist Rosenthal, with years of experience in and knowledge of the Middle East, defies that notion, giving an in-depth look at the rich variety of people in the Jewish state. Relying on dozens of interviews, she gives a lively, variegated portrait of all facets of Israeli life. Terrorism and relations with the Palestinians are covered, but so are secular-religious tensions, Ashkenazi-Sephardi divisions, Israeli Arabs and Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia. Throughout, Rosenthal stresses the contradictions in Israel: a country steeped in historical and religious tradition that is trying to develop a high-tech economic future; a democracy that many see as favoring its Jewish citizens above its Arab ones; a country ruled in some ways by a rigid religious establishment that also maintains thriving gay and lesbian communities. Rosenthal displays prodigious reporting and allows the people themselves-whether Jewish or Arab, men or women, religious or secular-to speak, and their voices are alternately despairing and hopeful, defiant and conciliatory. As a result, she captures an entire country, one full of flux and drama, in as vivid and nuanced a way as possible: a former male model turns Orthodox; an Ethiopian who "had never used electricity... until he was twelve" now designs computers. With the huge interest in Israel among the reading public, this is likely to find a sizable audience. Agent, Bonnie Solow. (Oct.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An amiable portrait of the 6.7 million people—a population about the size of Baghdad’s—who live in a country smaller than New Jersey but that "captures the lion’s share of the world’s headlines." Chalk it up to the Bible and news formulas, perhaps, but many American readers might find it odd to imagine that for many an Israeli, there’s nothing quite so wonderful as a trip to a Tel Aviv shopping mall, a slice of pizza, and the new Eminem CD. Such people populate the pages of former Jerusalem Post reporter and Israeli TV producer Rosenthal’s lively take, which centers on ordinary citizens in what Rosenthal trusts are "abnormal times." Many of these ordinary Israelis, Rosenthal writes, love to argue in cafes, offer unsolicited advice to strangers, participate in all-night raves on the Red Sea, hang out in Katmandu, and smoke a little weed or indulge in stronger pleasures; many others wrestle to preserve traditional practices in the face of the globalizing pressures that are changing the world. Consider headgear as a tribal badge, Rosenthal suggests: "Israelis wear army helmets, kippot (yarmulkes), kaffiyehs (headdresses), wigs, and veils. They also wear baseball caps backwards and earphones connected to MP3 players." Some, despite the presence of Orthodox "modesty patrols," are gay (though, says one such person, "In our world, being gay is like eating pork on Yom Kippur"); some, despite injunctions against it, live with members of the opposite sex outside marriage; some, quite apart from the Palestinian population, are not Jewish. By Rosenthal’s account, Israeli society adds up to "a large extended, sometimes dysfunctional, family," made perhaps a little more dysfunctional by theconstant threat of war and terrorism, which even peace activists seem to accept as an unhappy fact of life. Which, she quotes former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek as saying, explains why Israelis are such bad drivers: "When you have to fight a war every few years, safe driving becomes the farthest thing from your mind." A lively, cliché-popping account, sure to irritate fundamentalists and the humorless, but a treat for everyone else. Agent: Bonnie Solow/Solow Literary Enterprises
From the Publisher
"A wonderful book: well researched, balanced, and a joy to read. It brings you a picture of Israel that only a superb journalist such as the author can expose. This is one of the best books I have read in a long time." — Amir D. Aczel, author of Fermat's Last Theorem

"A panorama of Israeli diversity — Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Orthodox and secular, Russians and Ethiopians, Arabs and Christians.... Thanks, Ms. Rosenthal!" — Los Angeles Times

"Rosenthal captures an entire country, one full of flux and drama, in as vivid and nuanced a way as possible." — Publishers Weekly

"Intimate and vibrant. The only book I have ever seen that reveals the full human spectrum of Israel today." — Daniel C. Matt, author of God & the Big Bang and The Essential Kabbalah

Martin E. Halstuk, Ph.D. professor of journalism, Pennsylvania State University, former reporter, San Francisco Chronicle Donna Rosenthal's sharp journalistic eye gives readers a rare book — an objective and even-handed account of life in Israel today.

David Biale author of Eros and the Jews and editor of Cultures of the Jews: A New History Donna Rosenthal paints a colorful and compelling portrait of young Israelis nobody knows. We hear the personal stories of the crazy mix of people who live in this well-known but little-understood land. From an Ethiopian with dreadlocks and a kippa to a Muslim rapper to the Christian woman who edits an Arabic-language Cosmo. Anyone who wants to go far beyond the headlines will be wiser for having read this insightful book.

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The Israelis

Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land
By Donna Rosenthal

Free Press

Copyright © 2003 Donna Rosenthal
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7432-7035-5

Chapter One

Dating and Mating Israeli-style

How many calories does an American man spend making love? Ten. English? Ten. An Israeli? One hundred - ten to make love and ninety running to tell his friends. - Popular joke about Israeli machismo

Israelis tend to have a macho bravado in dating and everyday life and reassure themselves that everything will be fine even if it won't. This denial may also be a response to the uncertainty of life here. On a deeper level, it may be a response to our parents' or grandparents' helplessness in face of the Holocaust. - Family therapist Rachel Biale

"My parents let me go to clubs in Tel Aviv until three in the morning," says seventeen-year-old Ronit Heffetz. "They're afraid of terrorists, but at my age, my grandparents were running guns for the underground and soon I'm going in the army, so how can they say no? We have to go on living and not be afraid." Even though the second intifada has brought terrorism to the home front, it is still not uncommon to see fourteen-year-old girls hitchhiking to a beach, twelve-year-olds walking home from unsupervised parties at dawn, or an ten-year-old traveling alone on a public bus. Parents know that if their child gets lost, any adult will help her get to her destination. In 2002, Israel had far less street crime involving kids than almost any major American city.

That's one reason Israeli kids are fiercely independent and exhibit more than their share of youthful bravado. Many Israeli parents are reluctant to set limits and encourage their children to be self-sufficient and resourceful, partly as preparation for the army and adulthood. But it's just one way to understand how Israelis develop their unique mating habits. As the world's only Jewish nation, Israel reflects a huge range of mores developed in two millennia of diaspora Judaism. A country with a population half the size of greater Los Angeles, with a shared history shorter than that of the United Nations, is nonetheless home to cultures that were formed in St. Petersburg, Baghdad, Brooklyn, and Bombay - with all the resulting chaos and richness in mating rituals.

And that's not all. In addition to the cultural conflicts within Israel are the even more dangerous conflicts between the Jewish state and its neighbors. Because of Israel's never-ending state of war, it is the only country that requires most of its eighteen-year-olds to leave home and serve with members of the opposite and equally hormonally charged sex. It makes for behavior that Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, never dreamed of. Ronit's eldest brother Ori, a twenty-seven-year-old physics student, lives at home because there are few dorms at Tel Aviv University and renting an apartment is too expensive. He relates a typical Saturday morning scene: "I was in bed with a girlfriend. Ronit was in the army. My two brothers were on leave from the army and sleeping with their girlfriends. All three of our bedroom doors were closed. My mother's voice came over the intercom. 'I'm making brunch. Are you alone or do you have a guest?' Mom's realistic. She knows we're going to do it anyway. There's no game playing with Israeli parents, no bullshitting. They'd rather we do it here where it's safe, than sneaking off somewhere else."

Soon after Ori met his first serious girlfriend in high school, the 1991 Gulf War broke out. With Scuds hitting the Tel Aviv area, her family fled to a hotel in the Red Sea resort of Eilat. "We really missed each other. So she convinced her parents to let her stay with me and my family on weekends," he recounts. "Her mother made her promise she wouldn't sleep in my room. So each morning, she'd get out of bed and sleep in my sister's bedroom. One night we were coming very close to losing our virginity. At the most delicate time, we heard sirens. We grabbed our gas masks and ran down to the sealed room. We sat with my family, hearing the Scuds fall, guessing how close. When the radio announcer reported it was all clear, we returned to my bedroom and tried again. But we were too tense. The next time she slept over, we ignored the sirens. My mom pounded and pounded on the door. I told her we were coming down, but we didn't bother. And we didn't even bother putting on our gas masks. Six months later I went into the army. I wonder if the new improved [gas masks] are designed better to wear during sex?"

During a heightened alert period of the intifada, in August 2002, nearly two thousand mounted police, soldiers, and bomb disposal experts stood watch over Tel Aviv's Love March. No one expected the turnout: well over a quarter million revelers showed up for the weekend extravaganza. It resembled carnival in Rio, with nearly naked Israelis frolicking on the beaches, moving passionately to live music. At an all-night rave party, thousands were dancing away their despondency, kissing lovers, even strangers.

"We just want a sane life," explains Ori. "A few kilometers away in Gaza, Israeli soldiers and Palestinians are killing each other, but we let loose as if all that were continents away. We have what I call national Alzheimer's disease - no one wants to remember the morning's news." After seeing too many friends killed or wounded, Israelis have adopted the motto "Life is uncertain, so eat your dessert first." As with foreign travel, carpe diem isn't irresponsible, it's an escape from the pressure cooker. In this crisis-a-day country, the mood changes constantly, a roller coaster that ascends with each cease-fire and plunges with each new attack. Israelis have learned that fun, sometimes reckless fun, helps them feel as if these times are normal.

In the upper Galilee village of Metulla, on the nervous border with Lebanon, at a club inside a converted shoe factory, 2 A.M. is peak hour. The DJ ups the amps so no one can hear the Katyusha rockets. More than five hundred factory workers, students, kibbutzniks, and male and female soldiers are dancing wildly, as if Hezballah, the radical Islamic Party of Allah, didn't have thousands more rockets and missiles across the barbed wire fence. Even during these uncertain times, patrons aren't drinking much alcohol. (A recent study shows that drinking rates in Israel are lower than in North America and twenty-four European countries. There's so little boozing that Israel has few liquor stores and only in 2002 enacted drinking laws.) It's expensive: a bottle of Scotch that goes for $14 in France or the United States costs $35 in Israel. "We party, flirt a lot. No one has a long-term vision anymore," a student from Tel Hai College shouts above the din. "There are politicians who make me want to tear my hair out, but then I remember that this is a young country, a work-in-progress." His girlfriend flashes an alluring look. He stops in mid-thought and heads toward her.

On the beaches, no less than in the clubs, eroticism is out in the open. Teasing touches and rampant flirting are part of the (usually harmless) mating game, Israeli-style. People gesture dramatically, interrupting and challenging each other. The verbal pyrotechnics are not unusual; Israel is a lively open-air theater, a place for animated disagreements, a place for good arguments. Women make approving comments as they admire a well-built windsurfer wearing a postage-stamp-size Speedo. Men visually undress a redhead in tight shorts sitting alone. As she pulls out a Parliament, a man with little round French sunglasses leaps up and flips open a gold lighter. A female alone is never alone for long.

Maya is fourth-generation Sabra - Arabic and Hebrew for the local cactus fruit, a metaphor for native-born Israelis, who are said to have prickly exteriors but soft insides. Glancing at her watch, she notices that her boyfriend was due at this eating place at the Herzliya beach a half hour ago. According to Israeli time, he's not late. Many Israelis don't like being controlled by watches (as they are in the army) or planning too far in advance. Expressions like "lost time" or "saving time" rarely are heard outside the army. Maya's boyfriend, Noam, finally arrives and plants a kiss on her lips. He hands her an English-language version of The Lonely Planet guide to Peru. They discuss Ben-Gurion. Not Israel's white-maned founding father, but Ben-Gurion International Airport, where they'll head after her army discharge. Of course, they'll visit Machu Picchu, but thrill-seeking Israelis consider the lost Inca city tame. "We'll backpack in the Andes and visit tribes in the Amazon. Explore places not on a map. I want to have as many adventures as possible, taste everything," says Maya, glad to be out of the army, where she was a combat medic. "They say being around death teaches you to live. I don't know if it's true, but everyone in my unit wants to go to jungles in Laos or bungee jumping in New Zealand. My parents are less worried about me climbing the Andes than serving on the West Bank."

Noam, a twenty-six-year-old acupuncturist, says his parents convinced them not to go to Thailand. Since the day al-Qaeda bombed Israelis in a Mombassa, Kenya hotel and tried to take down an Israeli charter jet with two surface-to-air missiles, any place Israelis congregate abroad is not safe - especially Bangkok. Traveling Israelis are cautioned not to carry books in Hebrew or speak Hebrew in public. "My parents warned me not to visit any synagogues in Lima or Buenos Aires," says Noam. "The last time they were in synagogue was their wedding. For them, the army was the place to meet and mate. Mom was twenty-one, Dad twenty-three. By my age, they owned an apartment, had two kids and one on the way. Maya and me? We can afford a rented room and a good stereo. No one I know is in any rush to the altar - unless you want to have kids. You know why Seinfeld is popular? This is the scene here. It's about our lives. So is Friends, Sex and the City, and Ally McBeal. Only we lose the best years of our lives in the army. And if we don't start this trip soon, I'll be called to miluim [reserve duty]."

"So, you're on a diet?" the generously proportioned waiter eyes Maya's partially eaten tofu burger. She shakes her head no. "Then why are you eating like you're in Weight Watchers? You're not fat. If you were a little more zaftik, I'd go for you myself," he announces as he playfully pinches her arm. "Hey, things are different now," she says, annoyed. "Haven't you heard? The rules have changed." The waiter winks at Noam, who doesn't consider the waiter's behavior offensive; it's harmless flirting. And his comments aren't meddling, they're a sign of warmth, connectedness. Israelis often dish out advice to strangers as if they were members of a large extended, sometimes dysfunctional, family. The waiter returns with a decadently rich crème brûleé. No charge.

Rumors used to fly when an unmarried couple moved in together. No longer. Most cohabiting couples are young, educated, not very religious Ashkenazim. According to a recent survey, 26 percent of married Israelis lived with their spouse before marriage. (The rate is much lower among Mizrahi Jews and Christian Arabs. It's practically nonexistent among ultra-Orthodox Jews, Muslim Arabs, and Druze.) Note the distinction "before marriage": in some Western countries, cohabitation is an alternative to marriage, but not in family-oriented Israel. It's a modern version of engagement, part of the route to the huppa, says Professor Yohanan Peres of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University. "Israelis still have a strong belief that marriage protects the wife and children. Israelis perceive a wedding as an insurance policy, largely related to the sense of siege here. Because people feel danger, they want to be close to someone related by law."

Vered did. She also was sick of the questions. At least five times a day, taxi drivers, bank tellers, complete strangers asked if she was married. When she said no, they asked, Why not? She bought a fake gold ring, and whenever she was asked the dreaded question, she held it up. Then they asked how many children she has. She wondered if she ever would meet someone exciting. Close to her thirtieth birthday, she got to know Yossi, the contractor working on her apartment. Her brother wasn't thrilled. "He likes your blonde Ashkenazi hair. He's an arse." Her brother's crude comment, calling Yossi a stereotypical uneducated, uncultured Mizrahi, angered Vered. "I didn't care what my brother thinks. So Yossi didn't go to college. He's a self-made man. He's caring and attentive. And he comes from a loving Moroccan family. My last boyfriend gave my parents heart palpitations. He was Israeli, but not Jewish. An uncircumcised Russian. I'll never forget my mother's guilt-line: 'My family escaped Poland to build a Jewish homeland. And you want to give me non-Jewish grandchildren?'"

When Vered was promoted to part-time radio reporter, to celebrate Yossi took her to Eilat, one of the few towns in Israel still untouched by terrorism. Moses stopped here with the Children of Israel when they were looking for the Promised Land. During the time of King Solomon, ships arrived laden with gold, wood, and ivory. Eilat has gone from an Old Testament port to a playground for sun worshippers and water lovers. Relieved to escape the realities on land, Vered and Yossi donned masks and fins. Gliding along lacy coral canyons, they saw swirling schools of angelfish, blue-neon damsels, and clownfish playing on the reef. "It was an underwater jewel box. When I told Yossi there were as many tropical fish on the Great Barrier Reef, he was puzzled. I had to explain it's in Australia. 'Why did you go all the way there?' he asked. 'We have everything here.'"

As they walked hand-in-hand near the beach, they saw hair braiders, tattoo artists, body-piercing places. Yossi made fun of them. Vered swapped travelers' tales with kids selling trinkets from India and herbs from China. Her passport is filled with visas. He doesn't have a passport. "To Yossi, a trip to Eilat is going abroad. And he thinks the floating casinos are as good as Monaco. But he tried so hard to please me. Splurged on a swanky hotel, a biblical Disneyland with faux 'ancient' stone arches, but I didn't let him know it's not my taste. I'm the backpacker type. Last time I was in Eilat, I slept on the beach. His idea of a vacation is room service."

From their hotel balcony, they could see the lunar desert landscape and craggy mountains, which reminded Vered of a short story by Albert Camus. "Camus? Yossi never heard of him. And Camus lived in Algeria. But as he massaged me with coconut lotion, I didn't care." Afterward, the pillow talk turned serious. He owns a small plot near Jerusalem and wanted Vered to see some architectural plans. "His designs for a dream house - for us. I started trembling when I realized he was proposing. A huge-hearted guy. But the kind who thinks kitchens have windows so women can have a worldview. I told him I needed time. When he fell asleep, I kissed his face in apology. He'll make a very wonderful husband - for some other woman."

It wasn't until Vered broke up with Yossi that she started thinking she needed someone who didn't like bowling on weekends, someone cosmopolitan. After a few months, she met Yoel, a fascinating mix: a lover of theater, a successful lawyer with stimulating friends from the north Tel Aviv intellectual and artistic avant-garde, a gourmet, and a connoisseur of fine wine. He was also the son of a religiously observant Iraqi Jewish family, a family far more observant than Vered's own. Unlike two thirds of Israeli Jews, Yoel ate only kosher food. And, as if that weren't enough, Vered's secular parents, raised on bedrock socialist values, were taken aback to learn that she was dating an unabashed capitalist, and a successful one, who could afford to pay $300,000 for his one-bedroom condominium and $50,000 for his sports car (though, to be fair, half of that went to the taxes and tariffs on new cars). Never had the advice of Vered's sister seemed more appropriate: "Even rich men need wives."


Excerpted from The Israelis by Donna Rosenthal Copyright © 2003 by Donna Rosenthal. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Donna Rosenthal is the author of the award-winning The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land, new and updated in 2008. Called the best book about Israelis in decades, The Israelis has more than 100 excellent international reviews across the religious and political spectrums: from the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post to The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz to The Japan Times.

Ms. Rosenthal was a news producer at Israel Television, reporter for Israel Radio and The Jerusalem Post, and a lecturer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times Newsweek and The Atlantic and many other publications. Ms. Rosenthal has reported from Iran, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan and was the first journalist to travel to remote mountain villages of Ethiopia and introduce Israel Radio audiences to the Jews of Ethiopia.

A winner of three Lowell Thomas Journalism Awards: Best Investigative Reporting, Best Foreign Travel Reporting (The New York Times) and Best Adventure Travel Writing, she has reported from the Middle East, Asia and Africa and South America. An expert on contemporary Israelis, she frequently is interviewed on TV and radio about Israel—from CNN to ABC to National Public Radio. 

In a Publishers Weekly's national survey, Ms. Rosenthal placed in the TOP TEN most popular speakers about Israel—and only female author. She has spoken about modern Israelis at over 25 universities—from Harvard to UCLA to Georgetown. And to audiences from Silicon Valley to Japan and from Germany to Australia.

Ms. Rosenthal has taught journalism at three universities. She holds a BA from University of California Berkeley (Political Science) and a Masters of Science (International Relations/Middle East) from The London School of Economics.


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